Rugby World Cup 2019: Japan v Russia

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Ambitious Japan coach Jamie Joseph is eyeing history as the hosts prepare to kick-off the Rugby World Cup against Russia in Tokyo on Friday.

The Brave Blossoms caused an almighty stir at the tournament four years ago by defeating giants South Africa 34-32 in one of the biggest shocks in the sport's history.

Agonisingly for the team, led by now England coach Eddie Jones, that effort in Brighton was not quite enough as they became the first team to be eliminated from the pool stage having won three matches.

It was Japan's best performance at a World Cup to date, but Joseph wants his side to dream big.

"Our team wants to make the top eight – it hasn't been done obviously for a Japanese team," said the former New Zealand flanker.

"The last World Cup, Japan did very, very well but still didn't make the top eight so that's been the target all along."

To make the last eight, Japan will have to fight their way out of a daunting Pool A, which also includes the top-ranked nation Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.

"We've got some very tough teams that we play, starting with Russia on the weekend," added Joseph.

"To achieve that goal, we've got to earn the right to be there so this week, the focus is on Russia and it's important that we put in a good performance and win that match and then we can move on to the next challenge."

History suggests Japan will make a flying start in front of home support at the Tokyo Stadium, having won five of their six matches against Russia.

Their brave, intense style shocked the Springboks and they caused problems for England in a 20-point defeat in 2018.

Underdogs Russia, ranked 10 places below their opponents, are playing at the World Cup for just the second time and only secured their place after Spain and Romania were docked points for fielding ineligible players.

In their first foray into the World Cup, Russia lost all four games at the 2011 tournament by an average margin of 35 points.

Head coach Lyn Jones recognises the limitations of Russia's squad but urged his team to play without fear.

"It is both scary and exciting and I've just explained to the players there's nothing we can do to help them prepare for this first game," he told The Guardian. 

"It's just about the experience and playing with no fear whatsoever. Just get out there and express yourself. If you play really hard and chase really hard it's amazing what you can achieve."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Japan – Kazuki Himeno

Japan have strength in the back row with captain Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne and Amanaki Mafi among the dynamic options. Himeno can be influential for the host nation with his ball-carrying skills and ability to get over the gain line.

Russia – Vasily Artemyev

A member of Russia's first World Cup squad and, at 32, this could well be Artemyev's last opportunity to grace the grandest rugby stage. He has 29 tries in 86 matches for Russia and boasts Premiership experience having represented Northampton Saints between 2011 and 2013.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Japan have won five of their previous six Test matches against Russia, including each of their last four on the bounce; their most recent clash saw Japan win despite trailing by 12 points at half-time, only once before have they recorded a bigger second-half comeback (16 points behind versus Canada in 2014).

- Japan and Russia will face each other at the Rugby World Cup for the first time; the Cherry Blossoms have won three of their four clashes with the Bears in Japan however, including a 75-3 triumph in their most recent such fixture in 2010.

- The opening game of the Rugby World Cup has been won by a host nation in six of the previous eight tournaments, with the only exceptions being England's defeat to New Zealand in 1991 and France's opening round loss to Argentina in 2007. 

- Japan won three of their four games at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, this after winning just once in 24 attempts during their previous seven World Cup campaigns (D2, L21).

- Japan have slotted 90 per cent of their kicks at goal in 2019, the best rate of any of the 20 sides at the Rugby World Cup in Test rugby this year, in contrast Russia have kicked 70 per cent (ninth best).